Selling the Future for a Hot Dog?

In mid-October the SDN World Congress marks the anniversary of the first NFV white paper’s publication.  SDN is far older than that, and the cloud is older still.  I attended a cloud conference last week, and while it was interesting and even insightful in spots, it’s pretty clear that we’re still missing a big part of cloud reality, and even more of SDN and NFV.  Most of what we read on the latter two topics is PR hype.

The problem is one of “mainstreaming”.  If you look at the distribution of humans by height you find most people are clustered around a centerpoint value creating a classic Maxwell curve, but there are very short and tall people.  In IT, most companies have fairly consistent patterns of deployment of technology and standard uses for it, but some companies have unusual applications and issues.  There’s the norm, and there are deviations from it.

Now, imagine someone selling chairs with seats three feet from the floor, or perhaps 18 inches.  There’s a ready market for this sort of thing among people who are unusually tall or short, and if we looked at the early adoption of our chairs we might be tempted to project hockey-stick growth based on the explosive early sales.  What’s missing is Mister Maxwell; the notion of a mainstream market that represents the dominant value proposition and the dominant opportunity.

If all we want to do with the cloud is host applications that are rightfully targets of server consolidation, we’re creating success that doesn’t extend to the center of our distribution of opportunity.  If we add to the “cloud market” by adding in everything that’s remotely hosted, every third-party server relationship, we’ll demonstrate that markets grow if you define them in a bigger way, but we won’t address the way that center-of-the-curve gets empowered.

In the cloud, success comes from a simple truth:  If the cloud is revolutionary for its flexibility and agility, then it will succeed if we have applications that can exploit those properties.  We need a revolution in application design to create mainstream cloud winners, and we’re not talking about what that revolution might look like.

Look now at SDN.  We have, with the OpenFlow model, the ability to create forwarding rules based on centralized policies, so that any arbitrary connection model could be supported.  Suppose we said that all traffic had to transit at least three switches, or move through a state whose name started with the letter “A” or stayed in the same time zone?  Stupid rules to be sure, but illustrative of the fact that with forwarding control you have service model control.  Total agility in building routes.  So what do we do with it?  Nothing that we’re not able to do without it.  Our efforts are almost totally focused on recreating Ethernet and IP, which we already have.

Success in SDN is another simple truth; SDN will succeed if it can deploy and exploit service models that can’t readily be generated with traditional adaptive-behavior network architectures.  This is why I’m all hung up on those “northbound APIs”, but it’s also indicative of a problem with how we look at SDN today.  We’re not talking about service models and they’re the only thing that matters.

Now it’s NFV’s turn.  NFV will succeed if it can frame a model of extemporaneous service generation, a model agile enough to give users what they’ll pay for with minimal explicit service creation and minimal human intervention for management.  The value of moving functionality from current appliances to hosting platforms is limited; it’s a good way to pluck some low apples to fund a real future.  It’s not enough to assure it.

That’s the common denominator here.  The cloud, SDN, and NFV are being framed as cost-savings strategies.  If they succeed in that form, they’ll make our industry smaller and duller.  But do we accept the notion that there’s nothing innovative left to do with connectivity, with features, with applications and productivity?  I don’t, and most of you reading this probably don’t either.  But we’re stuck in a model that not only accepts but embraces that view.  That’s why most CIOs now report to CFOs.  Instead of innovating, they’re sharpening financial pencils.

I read a book on the American Revolution recently, and any objective account makes it clear that it was hard.  I don’t think most revolutions are easy, and our cloud, SDN and NFV ones aren’t going to be an exception to that.  Whether we’re trapped in quarterly-profit obsessions by SOX or have simply surrendered our thinking caps, we’re not being innovative enough with our so-called “innovations”.  A great and revolutionary concept becomes an excuse to raise a few banners and maybe sell hot dogs at the mob scenes.

We can double total investment in software and hardware, in networking and IT over the next five to seven, based on past industry trends, if we can simply recapture our fire, our ability to think not about costing less but about doing more.  It’s growth that won’t last forever; that past history says that we’ll exhaust the potential of the new paradigm and the rate of growth in the industry will slip again—until we find the next revolution.  We can’t rest on our laurels in technology, because people don’t have USB interfaces in their bellybuttons.  We aren’t natural technology consumers, so technology has to be framed to enrich our lives and that enrichment only sets the bar higher for the next wave.

I’m going to be at the SDN World Congress in mid-October to talk about the future—not the pedestrian one that’s unfolding today but the exciting one the industry just may still be capable of driving.  See you there.

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